By Stefan Kubus –
DETROIT – As freshman netminder Pheonix Copley entered the room to speak with the media following his 38-save shutout over the Michigan Wolverines, his head coach Mel Pearson joked that the guy to his left “played OK tonight.”
With a 1-6-0 record – the lone win came against Minnesota early in the season, however – 4.43 goals-against average and .855 save percentage, shutting out one of the most successful programs in all of college hockey in front of more than 16,000 fans at Joe Louis Arena as a freshman definitely qualifies as better than “OK.”
“Pheonix hasn’t played in quite a while, but he had a real good game early in the year against Minnesota, beat a real good Minnesota team,” Pearson said. “He’s looked good in practice. I think that was the main thing. He’s really looked good in practice. He’s a confident kid, very athletic. And as you saw tonight, he can make the big save. He can make the save that can turn the game around.”
Led by Copley’s performance, a goal and two assists from freshman forward Jujhar Khaira and a two-goal outing from recuperating freshman Alex Petan, the Huskies’ 4-0 victory earned them a birth in their first GLI championship game since 2007 – one they lost to the Wolverines. That win also snaps a 10-game losing skid in the process to the Maize and Blue.
“I’m just really happy and proud of our players,” Pearson said. “We’ve had some tough games, a tough month here recently. A lot has been said about our goaltenders, but I thought tonight our goaltender really stepped forward and gave us a chance to win the game. And the rest of the team settled down and did a good job.”
The first period saw the Huskies tally a pair of goals, with Petan blasting one home from the slot to make it 1-0 with an assist going to Khaira.
Pearson said he wasn’t even sure if Petan was going to be ready to go for the game, as he received word early Saturday morning that the freshman standout was in the hospital with a bad case of the flu.
“I got a call about 9 o’clock this morning,” Pearson said. “He was sick all night, he had the flu. He wasn’t sure if he was going to play. They took him to a local hospital, he had three bags of an IV put into him. We skated an extra player in warm-ups because we weren’t sure if Alex was going to have the energy to play tonight. Sometimes, you have your best games when you’re not feeling well and he did.”
Later, on the power play with just four seconds remaining with the man-advantage, Khaira would add a goal of his own, tipping home a Riley Sweeney shot from the point to put Michigan Tech up by a pair.
“We’re starting to get [the puck] on net and everybody goes to the net, crashing the net so that’s a big part of it,” Khaira said. “The bounces, the puck was coming to me, but when they’re going to Alex or whoever in front of the net, they’re burying, too, so it’s the whole team.”
Meanwhile, Copley would hold strong through two periods, stopping all 28 shots the Wolverines sent his way.
“I felt comfortable tonight,” Copley said of his game between the pipes. “The team played well in front of me so that made it easier, but I did feel really comfortable.”
Early in the third, Petan added a second goal. On a partial breakaway, Petan made a move and showed great patience to tuck one past a sprawling Janecyk.
And as Petan skated past the bench, celebrating, the Wolverines didn’t take too kindly to it, resulting in five roughing penalties being dished out after the whistle, with the Huskies gaining a power play out of it.
Shortly after the power play expired, junior defenseman Tommy Brown let a shot go from the point through traffic that beat Janecyk through the five hole to make it 4-0 Huskies.
That’s the way it would stay for the remainder of the game.
Pearson served as an assistant coach to Red Berenson for more than 20 years, from 1988-2011. Saturday night, he defeated his longtime mentor as a head coach himself, guiding his Huskies past the Wolverines
“He’s a great man,” Pearson said of Berenson. “I really learned a lot from him and really owe him a lot. He’s one of the all-time great coaches of college hockey.”
Berenson echoed the kind words for what his former assistant coach has done with the Michigan Tech program.
“I talked to Mel last night,” Berenson said. “He’s done a good job up at Tech, and I’m not surprised. He’s got a good staff and they’ll do well up there. You’re not going to win on seniority in a game like this. They got the breaks, and they won the game, and good for them.”
The schedule for Sunday is now set as the Huskies will take on Western Michigan in the 7:05 p.m. championship game. The last time the Huskies won a GLI championship was 1980 and for the Broncos, 1986.
Meanwhile, another chapter in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry will take place at 3:35 p.m., albeit for third place.
“Obviously we have to put this game behind us,” Michigan captain A.J. Treais said. “There’s not much time, it’s an early game, so just put it behind us and get ready. It’s always nice to play a rival team. We would like to be in the championship game, but it’s something to get up for.”